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What’s VOA For?

January 7, 2014

Just before the Christmas break Take 5 posted Jonathan Henick’s summary of a US Broadcasting Board of Governors meeting and a couple of paragraphs caught my eye

The VOA discussion featured a number of comparisons with broadcasting organizations of other countries like CCTV, Russia Today, and the BBC (usually to illustrate that VOA is relatively underfunded). BBG Governor Matt Armstrong highlighted a key point, however, when he remarked that unlike those organizations the VOA is not seeking to secure a permanent market share in each of its overseas areas of activity. Instead, the VOA is ultimately seeking to put itself out of business in each of these areas by encouraging the development of local, independent media sources (i.e., by “exporting the First Amendment”).

Unspoken but implied was the suggestion that we should be careful when we compare VOA and its sister broadcasting agencies with official foreign broadcasters. VOA Director David Ensor agreed, in part, but countered that we may ultimately decide that we should maintain at least some presence in order to explain U.S. policies. Personally speaking, I agree with Matt Armstrong and am inclined to believe that the U.S. Department of State can fulfill that function in said markets, while perhaps relying in part on VOA’s English-language resources available at the Washington headquarters and its online platforms.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the idea that the VoA has a sunset clause before.  Given the non stop wrangling over US international broadcasting this triggered a few thoughts

How many countries don’t have guarantees of media freedom in their constitutions?  Given that most countries have some sort of constitutional guarantee this could be the excuse for the VoA to shut up shop.

Of course if what Matt Armstrong really means is some sort of functioning free media system then I think that we can guarantee that the VoA has a long term future but…this would give it a rationale – albeit one that might be better achieved by a merger of VoA with the RFE/RL axis and possibly handing the whole lot over to the National Endowment for Democracy to run.

There’s something deeper there as well, that is that idea that America won’t need international broadcasting if all countries were liberal democracies, David Ensor seems to appreciate that even if this were the case we wouldn’t automatically see things in the same way as the US (for example see the entire history of NATO) but as Henick comments it may be that we can leave this to the State Department.

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